Could a robot be conscious?


If a robot is produced that behaves just like one of us in all respects, including thought, is it conscious or just a clever machine, asks Prof Barry C Smith, director of the Institute of Philosophy.

Human beings are made of flesh and blood - a mass of brawn and bone suffused with an intricate arrangement of nerve tissue. They belong to the physical world of matter and causes and yet they have a remarkable property - from time to time they are conscious.

Consciousness provides creatures like us with an inner life: a mental realm where we think and feel and have the means to experience sights and sounds, tastes and smells by which we come to know about the world around us. But how can mere matter and molecules give rise to such conscious experiences?

The 17th Century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, thought it couldn't. He supposed that in addition to our physical make-up, creatures like us had a non-material mind, or soul, in which our thinking took place.

For Descartes, the non-material mind was uniquely human. He denied that animals had minds. When they squealed with what we considered to be pain this, he thought, was just air escaping from their lungs. Animals were mere mechanisms. And even if we created a clever mechanical doll that replicated all our movements and reactions, it would not be capable of thinking because it would lack the power of speech.

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These days few of us would deny our animal natures or accept that all other animals lacked consciousness. Besides, the idea of an immaterial soul makes it hard to understand how the mental world could have any effect on the physical world, and for that reason many contemporary philosophers reject mind-body dualism.

How could something that had no material existence move our limbs and respond to physical inputs. Surely it is the brain that is responsible for controlling the body and so it must be the brain that gives rise to our consciousness and decision making. And yet many of the same thinkers would agree with Descartes that no machine could ever be conscious or have experiences like human beings.

Carbon creatures

We can no longer rely on Descartes' criterion for deciding which beings could think. Nowadays computers can make use of language and synthesised speech improves all the time. It was the potential for computers to use language and respond appropriately to questions that led Alan Turing, the mathematician and war time code-breaker, to propose a test for machine intelligence.

Tiger Descartes denied animals had minds

He imagined a person sitting in a room, communicating by computer screen with two others in different rooms. She could type in questions and receive answers, and if she could not tell which of the respondents was a person and which was a computer she had no reason to treat them differently.

If she was prepared to treat one as intelligent, she should be prepared to treat the other as intelligent too. This is known as the Turing Test, and if the situation is arranged carefully, computer programs can pass it.

The original Turing Test relies on not being able to see who is sending the replies to questions, but what if we extended the test and installed the computer programme in a life-like robot? Robotics have developed rapidly in the last decade and we now see machines that move and behave like humans. Would such a display of life-like behaviour combined with appropriate responses to questions convince us that the machine was not only clever but also conscious?

Here, we need to draw a distinction between our thinking that the robot was conscious and it actually being conscious. We may be tempted to treat it as a minded creature but that doesn't mean it is a minded creature.

Last mystery

Those who study machine consciousness are trying to develop self-organising systems that will initiate actions and learn from their surroundings. The hope is that if we can create or replicate consciousness in a machine we would learn just what makes consciousness possible.

Researchers are far from realising that dream and a big obstacle stands in their way. They need an answer to the following question - could a silicon-based machine ever produce consciousness, or is it only carbon creatures with our material make-up that can produce the glowing technicoloured moments of conscious experience? The question is whether consciousness is more a matter of what we do or what we are made of.

Mathematician Alan Turing Turing developed a test for machine intelligence

Consciousness may be the last remaining mystery for science, but to some extent it has been dethroned from the central role it used to occupy in the study of the mental. We are learning more and more from neuroscience and neurobiology about how much of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and mechanisms.

And we are also learning that there is no single thing consciousness is. There are different levels of consciousness in humans, and much of our thinking and decision making can go on without it.

It's worth remembering that the only convincing experience of consciousness we have is our own. We are each aware of our own inner lives, but have only indirect access to the inner mental lives of others. Are the people around me really conscious in the way I am, or could they all be zombies who walk and talk and act like humans although there is nobody home.

And this is creates a twist in our story. For if we managed to produce a robot that behaved just like one of us in all respects that might be a proof not of the consciousness of a robot or machine, but instead may be a convincing demonstration of how much we could manage to do without consciousness.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    I do not believe that a machine can become "conscius" in the sense of "self-awareness", but their behaviour could ressemble consciusness, and through their "learning" (autonomus reprogramming) even ressemble feelings and emotions like greed, anger and pride.

    In view of this, I do hope there is a God, and that real consciusness is the privilege of the today animal domain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.


    "I'm pretty sure that some larger mammals are conscious, just as I am that invertebrates are not. But don't ask me about a mouse or a cat or a cow!"

    It has been suggested now that brain size has nothing to do with its function. It has been proposed that it depends on what kinds of brain tissue the brain is composed of that correlates to it functional capabilities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    The capacity to enjoy non-productive activities, to love those that do not benefit us, and to fear for others is for me the best proof of consciousness. I'm also certain that a being can be conscious without being able to display all of these traits. I'm pretty sure that some larger mammals are conscious, just as I am that invertebrates are not. But don't ask me about a mouse or a cat or a cow!

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.


    No its not there is already a Mathematical and Scientific (Physics) definition of the 5th dimension.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Consciousness is the fifth dimension. We live in it and we are connected through it. Jung's Collective Unconscious was as sideways look at what will eventually be shown to be a scientific fact. The fifth dimension stands beside time and space. Eternal life, remote viewing, dreaming, empathy etc show how we live in this other dimension on a daily basis. Machines as we know them cannot be conscious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    The truth is that man is truly incredible. An infinitely subtle being : look at the history, Einstein, Rumi, Buddha, Mozart, da Vinci ... it's incredible.

    Your education however does not teach you to be a genius, but to be a bland robot. And only a few are strong enough to break their conditioning.

    The rest think they are bags of meat; and look to robots to 'save' mankind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    @Clipper Ride

    "a true belief"

    A ... true ... belief ?????? Mumbo jumbo. You can see the limitations of philosophy when it comes to this kind of statement - it's the same reason that all philosophers die miserable with more questions then when they started.

    Have some wisdom and try something else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.


    Is this directed at me?

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Unless machines becomes self-programming, that is self-developing operating systems, it is unlikely those will become conscious in a sense we are. Additionally they would require approximately the same amount of growing-up-time we have (unless someone finds out how to play with toys or develop relationships with other humans faster). It's easier to make babies the usual way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    @243 RobertReno

    "Your an adult the day you realize your going to die."

    No, you are a child the day you realise you are going to die.

    You are adult the day you accept it.

    And the day you understand that you will not die is the day that you understand the limitations of thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    The advent of 'bio computing' has made mechanical robots a limited view. Now there’s a sticky situation if we created a biological entity (computer) that could distinguish it self as different from everything else and recognise itself as an individual is that consciousness?

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    One question is so quickly followed by another with this subject. I personally lack the brain power to scratch the surface; the only power I have is to ask more questions. This subject makes me feel so very small but I know we must and will ask the right and wrong questions. Even if it is only in our blind stumbling that we arrive at a point of understanding it will be an interesting journey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    I think one is fully conscious when one fears death. "Your an adult the day you realize your going to die."

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    @240. Under-Used

    Qualia is an interesting problem in the whole Theory of Mind. I guess we could never know what it is like for a robot to feel pain or see a green field. But then I can never know what it is like for you either. We can show that different cultures can see things in different ways so, perhaps, robots will have qualia unique to themselves?

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    As far as I'm concerned, anything that refutes conciousness as anything to do with a soul, thus eliminating our primitive connection to religion, has got to be a good thing.
    Sounds like we're finally getting there!

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    So if consciousness is the result of complex interaction and emergent in nature then a suitably complex system could perhaps emerge consciousness? What would the robot think of itself? Oh boy... I think my head is about to pop. But what tests do have to corroborate conscious states and how can they be translated for a silicon based life form? And what about Qualia; would a robot feel percepts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    @237. Fairsfair

    I agree. Not a popular opinion, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    @236. Dion

    I think there is some evidence that conciousness is a result of brain activity. When the guillotine was in use, several experiments were conducted that suggested the severed head was able to respond to spoken commands for some seconds or minutes after execution. The rest of the body however either did nothing or twitched in an uncoordinated fashion,

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    @223 ben_northeast

    If the world is a mechanical world started by the Big Bang, how can there be choice. There can only be succeeding consequences that are caused by what preceded them. Every blink of my eyelids is predestined mechanically. I was predestined to tap this key at this instant in time. It is either a fully mechanical world or there is a god who has given me choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    I don't think consciousness will ever be able to be explained. there is certainly no evidence it is produced by the brain. i think the answer lies with quantum physics.


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